they can do itThey can do it

Third World women could be the new recruits in the global war on poverty.

SINCE COMMODITIES FIRST CHANGED HANDS FOR CASH, the women among us have worked hard for the money—often, as they still do today in the developing world, putting in a full day of labor in the field before heading back for a second job keeping the homestead humming. Heck, most of the time they’ve worked hard for no money at all, since the work that women have done as mothers, caregivers, agriculturalists, and household CEOs frequently went uncompensated.

In the economically “advanced” world, the daily contradictions and gender-based biases women struggle with have long been catalogued and resisted by an organized and vigorous feminism. But in the developing world­, where culture and tradition continue to frame the roles, experiences, and expectations of girls and women­, the effects of patriarchy, second-class status, and domestic violence on women have been less explored. But their costs are profound, both to individual women and to the well-being of the communities and families they love and the cultural life they frequently maintain and defend.

Of the nearly 1 billion adults in the world who cannot read, two thirds are women. The first pulled out of school when a family can’t afford school fees, girls are often the last to be taken to health care centers when they need medical attention. The West has committed itself to a series of ambitious goals, the United Nation’s Millennium Challenge, that aim to halve the worst effects of global poverty by 2015. The industrialized world is sadly lagging in that campaign, and part of the reason can be attributed to a lack of serious attention to the continuing degraded position of women and girls in the developing world.

Poverty and the status of women are inextricably bound according to economic development experts. Too often the talents and potential contribution of women go unrealized because of insufficient or nonexistent educational opportunities, widespread inequality, sexual exploitation, and patriarchy’s sometimes vicious instinct for self-preservation. A vast, vibrant tool for poverty mitigation and community-based economic development remains ignored because of patriarchal prejudice and prerogatives. That means that any comprehensive approach to the problem of global poverty cannot be fully realized without an effort to address the status of women.

This is difficult terrain for Westerners to navigate as it can smack of cultural imperialism and Euro-centrism. And, after all, it is not as if we in the so-called developed world could not learn something ourselves about the importance of family and community and the true place of economic concerns in an authentic life. The Western person has “advanced” to a point such that our distractions and our consumption crowd out the mere reality of our living. No longer parents, companions, lovers, friends, we not only “bowl alone,” we don’t have time for an active engagement in civic life, don’t have dinner with our children, perhaps don’t have the energy or time to become the people God intended us to be.

Women in the West have always worked, of course, but over the past five decades they’ve fought hard for equal access to the more rewarding lanes in the capitalist rat race. Trouble is, while reforming workplace and educational opportunities for women, less attention was paid to reforming Western society as a whole to the new realities. Now with both partners on the job, there are fewer of us—men and women— who can fully commit to the hardest work of all: family.

If the current goal in drawing tradition-bound women into the formal market economy is to “enlighten” them such that they can emerge as “modernized” and frenetic as say, the average overworked, struggling-to-remain-in-the-middle-class Western office drone, then it’s fair to wonder who should be taking lessons from whom.

Women in the developing world have an opportunity as they overcome the cultural and traditional barriers that inhibit them to step back and consider if the Western experience is progress worth emulating or a sociological pratfall worth sidestepping somehow. What they learn about balancing a fully engaged work, family, and civic life could prove a truly liberating model for us all.

Kevin Clarke is a senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the January 2007 (Volume 72, Number 1; page 38) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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